Penguins fans from England, Spain journey across pond to Pittsburgh
Simon Brown and Phil Lee have never shaken hands, gone out for coffee or even met face to face. They've also never been to Pittsburgh.
Yet that won't stop the two friends from flying halfway around the world this month to see their beloved Pittsburgh Penguins.
Along with James Bird, a third friend they met online, they will arrive in Pittsburgh this week for 10 days to attend games in Consol Energy Center against the Islanders, Maple Leafs and Hurricanes.
Bird has been to Pittsburgh twice.
“I've been forever envious of him,” said Lee, 23. “I've always wanted to go but always struggled to plan and finance it. I can't wait to exit the Fort Pitt Tunnel and look upon the city of Pittsburgh with my own two eyes.”
Brown was born in Bolton, England, and lives on the south coast of Spain. Lee is from Sheffield, England — ironically known as a steel-producing town and where the Stanley Cup was made. Bird is originally from Lancashire, England, but lives on the Isle of Wight for work.
The three met online while playing an NHL video game on PlayStation 3. Lee and Bird are members of the British Penguins Fan Club, a social media-based group that has more than 4,000 Twitter followers.
A game that starts at 7 p.m. here doesn't start begin until midnight or 1 a.m. for these three. A West Coast start — 10 or 10:30 p.m. here — means Lee, Bird and Brown have to set alarms for the start between 3 and 4 a.m.
“Sleeping early and setting an alarm for midnight,” Lee said. “The sound of (anthem singer) Jeff Jimerson's voice wakes you up.”
Lee says he went through a stretch between the 2010-11 and 2012-13 seasons when he never missed a game, despite an hourlong commute each way to his job as a manager at British retail store Argos.
“Every night, sometimes up until 6 a.m. and working a full day straight after,” Lee said. “Completely worth it.”
Hockey's worldwide impact is not lost on the Penguins.
“It's a global game,” said Tom McMillan, the team's vice president of communications.
That doesn't mean they take their international appeal for granted.
“We're always humbled when we hear the stories of fans coming from overseas and about the Penguins' popularity in different countries,” McMillan said. “Not just countries where our players hail from — Russia, Sweden and Finland — but many others as well, like England, Australia and Japan.”
Brown, a cook, runs the kitchen of a beach bar in Spain. The bar closes for four months in the winter, so he's able to watch much of the entire regular season without worrying about a lack of sleep.
“The only downside is once work starts again, I miss most of the playoffs,” Brown said.
The trio's trip, which costs about $4,000 per person, is a birthday present Brown is buying himself. He'll turn 30 on the day they fly to Pittsburgh.
Bird and Brown said they became Penguins fans because they liked penguins — the animal version. And when they played video games — NHLPA '93 on the Mega Drive, known as Sega Genesis here — the Penguins were the logical choice.
“Having been to the city already, it now appeals on a level beyond the Penguins,” said Bird, 24, an aerospace engineer. “On my previous trips, I've been made to feel really welcome. It's an incredibly friendly city, and I've met up with plenty of Pens fans who were stoked to have someone travel over from the UK just to see the team.”
Lee is the most diehard Pittsburgh sports fan of the bunch, following the Pirates, Steelers and Penguins since 2005.
Like the other two, he regularly talks with people from Pittsburgh via social media in the middle of the night.
The group has a full schedule with meeting Pittsburgh-area friends for the first time.
For Lee, the greatest appeal is how he's treated by people here — none of whom he has ever met.
That, of course, will change in the third week of November, when Lee, Brown and Bird connect with Pittsburghers who had been only pictures on a screen.
They'll also celebrate Thanksgiving for the first time.
“There's just something about the city, your wonderful city, even though I'm still yet to visit, that just has me hooked,” Lee said. “Twitter allows me to feel like one of yinz. It's like we've been adopted by an entire city.”